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The Trustee For JT Baker '21, leadership is listening

The bells and dings of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at North Memorial Hospital can be both reassuring and unnerving - reassuring that the whirring undercurrent of machinery is sustaining the lives of children on the wing, yet unnerving because of the sensory overload reminding parents of the critical needs of their baby.

James and Alice Baker remember the sounds, but they heard them differently. They sounded like church bells.

Their son, James Timothy or JT, weighing not much more than a football at 24 ounces, lay in a fully mechanized crib for the first 24 hours after his birth. Supplemental oxygen flowed into his not-yet fully formed lungs instead of being introduced to the crisp Minneapolis air. A Bili Light, a fake sun taunting the first-time parents anxious to show their baby the wonder of natural light, fought off jaundice.

Born at 26 weeks, a full three months before full term, to say baby Baker clung to life may be an exaggeration - but not by much. It would be three weeks before the doctors proclaimed that they were out of the woods. James and Alice still had plenty of reason to worry. Ten percent of babies born at that age haven’t developed the strength to survive. More than one-third have major impairments, and a much greater percentage will have learning difficulties due to being extreme preemies.

James and Alice were older as first-time parents, James at 54 and Alice at 41. The couple had been happily married for nearly 15 years and together almost 25 as JT lay in the NICU. They had decided to name their little miracle baby James after his paternal grandfather and Timothy after his mom’s dad. From birth, it was shortened to JT. To this day, the only times he’s called James is when someone unknowingly reads his name off a manifest or he's talking to his girlfriend. His parents sometimes called him JT Money because after being discharged, insurance received a bill in excess of $1,000,000. When Alice calls her son’s cell phone, the display flashes “JT Money” to this day. His Twitter handle is the slightly exaggerated @jtmuhneyy.

Two decades after getting discharged as a small, but healthy, preemie, JT Baker logged on to his computer in an apartment a block off campus at Cornell University. Unrecognizable to any of the nurses working those three months in the NICU in late winter of 1999, Baker now stands 6 feet tall and weighs 185 pounds, big enough to play Division I football.

In front of his laptop camera, his size hardly matters when he’s in one of a multitude of digital squares with other members of Cornell’s Board of Trustees. As the lone student-athlete on an Ivy League campus to have a vote on his institution’s future in the midst of a global pandemic, Baker shows no lingering effects from the struggles of his first days as he helps make decisions that set a $14 billion institution on the right course.

“The responsibility that goes along with being a Trustee is that you have to go in with an open mind and be willing to speak out. When the vote comes, you have to have an understanding that you're not always going to be the most popular person among your constituents because you see the full picture right in your view,” said longtime Cornell Trustee Andrew Tisch ’71, co-chair of Loews Corporation and one of Baker’s mentors.

“I think God has blessed my journey and my path. Before any board of Trustee meeting, I pray,” Baker said. “That’s how I can advocate for all students, because I think of everyone as God’s children. I think this is something God wants me to do.”

Baker’s fighting spirit and his faith no doubt played a part in catapulting him into the digital room where it happens. From his first breath, Baker was a fighter. One of his earliest pictures as an infant is of him lying on his back with his fist up.

“You know he's going to bring the juice on game days and he's a guy you want to have in your corner, because you know he's going to fight. He’s in the fight, he’s ready to go toe-to-toe,” said teammate Eric Gallman ’21.

“He never plays small,” said David Archer ’05, the Roger J. Weiss ’61 Head Coach of Cornell Football. “Not in football. Not in life.”

The idea of running for the student Trustee spot was brought up by a pair of his mentors at roughly the same time - Robert Ryan MEE ’68 and Tisch.

Ryan, the former Senior Vice-President and CFO of Medtronic, Inc., was impressed when he saw an interview with Baker on a local news station after committing to play football at Cornell. He stopped by the Baker family’s restaurant and left his business card. Baker picked up the phone and called. A year later, Ryan, an emeritus member of the board, suggested JT give it some thought.

Not long after, Tisch made the same suggestion and cemented the idea in JT’s mind. He campaigned as a sophomore, building a base beyond just athletics.

“I had broad support and was able to make such an authentic connection with so many different parts of the campus - Asian students, Muslim students, Jewish students, sororities, fraternities,” Baker said.

Baker received the most votes in the election, but was disqualified after an athletics department employee sent out a message in support of his candidacy in the days leading up to the election. Because he did not disclose the relatively minor violation in a timely manner, he was cast aside.

“To get to that point and then have it taken away from me, that was the darkest point of my life,” Baker said.

He never lashed out, but rather heeded the advice of his high school coach, C.J. Hallman, and trusted the process.

A short time later, his position on the board was restored after an outcry by faculty and fellow students.

Nothing easy. Nothing handed to him.

“I tell JT all the time that in order to give testimony, you have to face a test,” said Kevin Warren, the Commissioner of the Big Ten Conference. “JT’s been tested.”

It is impossible to tell the story of JT Baker without talking about food, family, and community. It’s impractical without the smells and sounds associated with the Sunnyside Cafe in Minneapolis, Minn.

His father, James Baker Jr., has been cooking all his life, learning to fuse flavors from his aunts. He perfected his skills as a cook in the Navy during service in Vietnam. A commanding officer gave him some unsolicited advice during his tour - enroll in culinary school when you get back to the mainland.

Baker did just that. He spent two years waiting before becoming the first black student at Chicago’s Washburne Trade culinary school. After graduating in 1972, a classmate convinced him to join him in Minnesota. He cooked for members of the Minnesota Vikings, becoming sociable with the famed Purple People Eaters - particularly Hall of Famers Carl Eller and Jim Marshall.

It was fate that in 1976 James walked into Timothy’s Pizza and Soul Food on West Broadway and Emerson, one of the first black-owned restaurants in Minneapolis, and ordered a slice of pizza served up by Alice, the daughter of the owner. After that, he started coming by the restaurant more often. Her dad would say, “There’s James Baker again. Are you going to say hi to him? Just make sure he pays for his food.”

“I just laughed,” Alice Baker said. “It had gotten to the point where I wasn’t making him pay.”

“We’ve been together ever since.”

It wasn’t long before James brought roses and asked Alice to a movie. They realized quickly they were a good team. The couple was married in 1985 and moved to Las Vegas to be closer to Alice’s family who had moved to Hawaii. James worked at Ceasar’s Palace and prepared training camp food for boxing champions Mike Tyson and Michael Nunn, among others. They returned to Minnesota 14 years after the wedding when Alice became pregnant with JT.

The Bakers began catering and expanded with the opening of the Sunnyside Cafe and Elite Catering on the corner of Morgan and Glenwood Avenues in 2000. It quickly became Northside’s place to meet up after church on Sundays for brunch. Soul food to die for.

Members of the Vikings organization and other prominent Minnesotans made it a regular stop for some home cooking. Those that came, came every week. It was the type of place where regulars had their favorite seats, where food preparation began before customers sat down, since they had regular orders. There was music. There was laughter.

The family-oriented atmosphere existed because it was where the Bakers spent their time together. When JT wasn’t at school, he was working at the front of the house with his mother. His father would be marinating and spicing his baked chicken and preparing collard greens and sweet potatoes in the kitchen.

“And that chicken,” says teammate and friend Phazione McClurge ’21, “I never had chicken so good in my life. It didn't need any ketchup or sauce. It was perfect.”

Alice did most of the cooking at home, always putting on a great meal after James just didn’t have it in him to cook because he’d spent all day in the kitchen at work. They’d often eat together late then rise before the sun to get breakfast catering orders out the door in advance of morning meetings in high rise office buildings across town.

“I imagine they said ‘I’m doing this with my family, for my family.’ It made the business more meaningful,” JT said.

From the time he could walk and talk, he was put to work. Little JT grew up sweeping floors, cleaning dishes and taking orders. He’d dart under, around and through customers who all knew him and watched him grow up.

“To this day, I could be in the grocery store and some older lady might say how she remembered me cleaning tables when I was 5 years old,” JT said. “She remembered giving me a $1 tip and watching my face light up.”

Customers would often hand his parents money for “JT’s college fund.”

Growing up at the Sunnyside Cafe provided him the love of hospitality. A trip to Vegas when he was 12 then piqued JT’s interest in real estate. How could it not, the thought of owning the fountains in front of the Bellagio or the Great Sphinx of the Luxor? Together, those experiences sealed his interest in Cornell’s Statler School of Hotel Management.

As JT got older, his afternoons would be taken up by football or basketball practice, but he’d still help out when he could in the evenings and on weekends. When JT left for Cornell, James started cooking for his family again. The Bakers closed Sunnyside Cafe and rented out the building to new tenants.

“I left that summer after my senior year in high school and they could tell it was too much for them. When I left, they had finished their goal of getting me to college and now they could take a break. They genuinely loved what they did, and that’s why the community loved them so much.”

James and Alice had sacrificed, thriving in a business where failure is statistically much more likely than success. Fourteen hours a day on their feet was not unusual.

“Some people retire at the time my dad was having me,” Baker said. “None of my family ever went to college, and now I’m at a world-class institution. Not only am I at a world-class institution, but I’m in the No. 1 school in the world for hotel administration and business. And not only that, but I’m also playing Division I football. And then I’m serving on the Board of Trustees and essentially helping run a $14 billion dollar institution. And I’m only 21. It’s mind blowing, but I wouldn’t be anywhere without the sacrifices of my parents.”

“I have so many mentors, incredible people from business to sports that are invested in my life, but at the end of the day, my dad is my hero and my mom is the toughest woman I’ve ever met,” Baker said.

“JT is blessed with great, great, great parents. It is in his DNA to be a good person,” Archer said. “He was raised so well, and it's obvious to anyone who meets him.”

In addition to his mom and dad, the everyday person in his life most likely to keep him on a forward trajectory is his girlfriend of five years, Samantha Chaney.

"Many people only get to see the final product, but she is there with me the entire process, every step of the way, Baker said. "Since we first met, she has always had this natural ability to ensure I stay true to myself and keep me focused. She is not only my most trusted advisor, but she is also my best friend and that is what makes her so special to me."

JT's commitment to family doesn’t stop at the front door of his house. JT’s built a family in every community he’s visited.

Growing up in a Minneapolis community shook by the murder of George Floyd this spring, Baker’s been called to be a voice for social justice at Cornell.

As a young black man on Cornell’s Board of Trustees, he’s advocated for an anti-racism center.

“It’s not so much about Cornell, it’s about the world we’re going into. We’re building future leaders of the world. We want them to be equipped to read financial statements if they’re in business. We want them to read lab reports if they’re in sciences. They also need to be able to go into a world that is predominantly unjust to black people and learn to recognize that and make a change,” Baker said.

His family’s restaurant is less than five miles from the convenience store where Floyd was killed. During the protests that sometimes turned to unrest, the former Sunnyside Cafe was vandalized and looted. JT was on the ground in his hometown, sharing the pain with his community.

“I’ve walked that sidewalk and I’ve shopped at that store. In different circumstances,” JT recognized, “that could have been me.”

“JT understood it was a historical time to be out there on the ground, surrounded by black leaders, seeing the revolution and change,” McClurge said.

JT never left his family, and in turn his heart has never left the restaurant or the neighborhood.

"I think a lot of times when black men get to elevated positions, they surround themselves in their new circles and kind of forget where they came from," Chaney said. "That's not James."

It was almost indescribable, the sound. In C.J. Hallman’s first home game as head football coach at DeLaSalle HS, the crowd erupted in the final minute when his senior receiver hauled in a halfback pass in the corner of the end zone to give the Islanders a 22-17 lead over rival Irondale HS.

It was Baker who caught the ball, his fourth and final reception of the night to surpass the 100-yard plateau. He had delivered in the clutch, executing the trick play exactly as drawn up to send his squad to the locker room with its first win of the year.

“Earlier in the week, JT and I talked about how it was a milestone for both of us,” Hallman said. “I’ll never forget him running to the sideline and me saying ‘you know you just did that?’ He always has a way of being in the moment without worrying about the moment.”

Football is rarely the first thing mentioned in JT’s story, but not because it isn’t important to Baker. It is. Sports has always been a passion, and it remains a dream for him to make it a career. Baker has also used sports as part of a plan to get where he is now.

For the first half of his high school career, football was just something he did. Baker’s wide eyes had fastened on basketball as his primary sport. Playing for one of the top programs in the country, he was a member of two of the six consecutive state championship teams DeLaSalle produced from 2012-17. But standing just 5-8 early in his high school career, Baker simply did not have a basketball future. That hard truth was delivered by Hallman, who also coached basketball at DeLaSalle. The two met in his office early in Baker’s career to talk about goals.

“He was this young, ambitious athletic-type kid. He had a natural leadership quality to him,” Hallman said. “It offset his lack of ability. But he had a way of carrying himself that made him bigger than life.”

Hallman told Baker that maybe if he was 6-2 or 6-3, he’d have a chance at a Division I basketball scholarship. Instead, he suggested Baker focus on football. Hallman told him to look inside himself and ignore what he tells everyone to feel comfortable, then write down his dreams and goals.

The 14-year-old Baker pulled a black, spiral-bound notebook out of his bookbag.

“I immediately knew he was different,” Hallman said. “I knew he was serious about getting to a different level.”

Two days later he returned to Hallman’s office with three things written down in his notebook.

  1. Change my family’s circumstances by being the first in my family to go to college.
  2. Go to an Ivy League institution.
  3. Play Division I football.

“The next thing Coach Hallman did was so important,” Baker said. “He invested in me. He gave me hope.”

Hallman told him it was time to plan, so the two researched what specific things Baker needed to do to achieve his goals and challenged him to grow.

Strive for perfect attendance. Sit in the front of class and get to know your teachers. Be on time. Always do the right thing, even when no one is looking.

Be a leader.

When he began focusing on football, college coaches took notice, especially in the Ivy League. The first in the door was Cornell’s Guido Falbo, the Big Red’s lead recruiter in the state of Minnesota.

“Here comes Coach Falbo, and he looks like a Division I coach,” Baker said. “I didn’t know much about Cornell coming into the process, but I was impressed with them right from the start.”

Baker’s hard work had paid off.

“I picked up his transcript in the guidance office and asked them to tell me about JT. His guidance counselor just jumped out of her seat when she saw I was from Cornell. ‘You have to understand this kid is so special to us, he's so special to this high school because of what he has done and who he is.’ I mean, the outpouring of emotion for him and his family was special,” Falbo said.

The guidance counselor brought him to the principal’s office. Same story. Then he stopped the school lunch lady. Same story.

“He exuded exactly what we're looking for as an individual, and not only did he check all the boxes, but it was clear he would make a difference here at Cornell.”

Falbo and the Big Red stayed connected, but Baker eagerly listened to the pitches from other schools. Armed with questions he came up with in advance about all aspects of the respective programs, colleges, and educational opportunities in and out of the classroom, Baker always came prepared. He dismissed one prominent Ivy school high on his list because the coach seemed disinterested in the visit.

“Bad fit,” he told Hallman moments after the school left the room.

To this day, Hallman still provides Baker’s questions to his high school students as a guide of what to ask when college recruiters call.

While he had Cornell’s eye, he hadn’t secured an offer yet. Football coaches contact hundreds of kids per year to yield classes of approximately 30 student-athletes. While highlight films and game tape are important, the best way to earn a spot is to attend a school’s summer camp and compete live against other prospects. Baker was extended an invitation to Cornell’s junior camp. Falbo told him that Coach Archer needed to see him in person before they could extend him a spot.

Baker excitedly brought the offer to his parents. They sat him down and had an frank conversation with him.

“JT, we can’t afford that,” he recounted. “There’s no way we can fly you to New York and put you up in a hotel room, take time away from the restaurant. You know we love you, but we just can’t.”

His parents were in a tight financial situation at the time and had fronted the money to send him on other college trips. The Cornell price tag just wasn’t going to be possible. He threw the pamphlets away.

For most high school students, that would have been it. But in the back of his mind, JT had his heart set on Cornell. He was not about to give up on his opportunity so easily. In one swoop, he could cross No. 2 and No. 3 off his black book list at the same time.

Baker scraped together money he had saved. He found a redeye into New York City for half the cost of a regular flight. The high school senior-to-be had never been to New York City before and was still four hours away from campus. He called Coach Falbo and asked whether Cornell could provide transportation. NCAA rules would not allow that. So, he caught a bus to Ithaca. Hotels in Ithaca were expensive, so he called Coach Falbo again. Can I stay with a player, or at a dorm? It was a no again. Baker called all around campus and found that there was a summer science program in one of the dorms. He found out he could rent one of the rooms for $25 per night. He could ride the program’s shuttle to campus where a special stop at Schoellkopf was added.

Baker did all the legwork himself. Now at the field early for the camp, Coaches Archer and Falbo spotted him and called him over.

“They asked where my parents and I were staying. I told them the story,” Baker said. “Later that day, Coach Archer told me regardless of how I played, he was extending an offer. He knew I wanted to join the Big Red family.”

Archer’s gut feeling and Baker’s faith in himself proved prophetic.

Baker’s football career started to explode. He earned all-district honors as both a junior and senior at DeLaSalle, catching 107 passes for 1,365 yards and 13 touchdowns in his final two seasons on offense. He was a heat-seeking missile on defense, posting a pair of interceptions and ranking among the state’s top 50 high school prospects.

His parents never sat together at games. James, when he wasn’t tethered to the restaurant, would sit quietly on his own. Alice, meanwhile, let everyone know that No. 11 was her son. She yelled for JT when he made a tackle or caught a pass. She encouraged his teammates. She celebrated every success, and there were many.

“When I think of the happiest times in my life, it’s playing football. Big games, scoring touchdowns, practices, friends,” JT Baker said.

Following his final high school season, Baker was chosen to compete in the Minnesota Football Showcase, a senior all-star game sponsored by the Minnesota Football Coaches Association. He was chosen captain of the North squad and was asked to give a speech at the banquet on the evening before the game. In the audience was Minnesota Vikings COO Kevin Warren. His son, Powers, was playing for the South team. It would have been impossible to guess that a brief encounter that night would soon create another branch in Baker’s “family” tree.

In the late fall of 2020, Baker accepted a job with J.P. Morgan and is applying to Harvard Business School’s 2+2 program that will allow him to work for at least two years before enrolling. Doing so comes at a cost - his football career, for all intents and purposes, is over.

Baker could have delayed graduation, his job offer and graduate school to potentially return in the fall of 2021 with the hope of seeing the field. Like anything else, the choice was not easy, and nothing was going to be handed to him.

“His decision regarding playing weighed on him,” Archer said. “He was willing to turn it all down to have a chance to get on the field. If it wasn't for the uncertainty of COVID, I believe football was that important to him that he would have turned his other options down.”

“He just loves the game of football, and his love for it is so true,” McClurge said.

Injuries have limited him, largely snuffing out a promising playing career. Baker saw action in junior varsity games as a freshman despite suffering a bad high ankle sprain that made him miss the first practices of his life. He had his sights on a travel roster spot on special teams the following year before a torn lateral meniscus in his left knee set him back and ended in surgery that more or less wiped away his junior campaign. Then, finally fully healthy, his senior year was canceled by COVID.

When Baker called Coach Falbo to let him know that he’d decided to take the job at J.P. Morgan, he cried.

“Without Coach Falbo, I never would have been at Cornell,” Baker said. “You sometimes forget where it all started, and it all just hit me when I was on the phone with him.”

One coach told Baker that despite never playing a varsity snap, he had the best experience of any Cornell football player ever.

“Truth be told,” Archer said, “I don't know how he is a student and a trustee. I can't imagine how he would have managed had it not been for the injury. The demands, they’re real.”

There's a freedom at altitude that can't be replicated on the ground. It is stored in panoramic views reserved exclusively for birds and pilots. There's quiet and stillness in the emptiness as you look up, an appreciation of the plane’s vast power that holds its place in the sky when you look down. To orient yourself, you don't look up, or down, or backwards.

Always forward.

“When you get up in the air, it’s the most phenomenal feeling ever. It’s just you and the sky. You have a lot of power in your hands, but it almost feels effortless,” Baker said.

Baker first sat in a cockpit seat when he was 7, eventually piloting Cessnas, Pipers and gliders. As part of a youth engagement program, he got to know Col. Charles McGee and Joseph Gormer, two of the last remaining Tuskegee Airmen. There was a time when his childhood career ambitions involved flying, but other ideas grabbed his mind's attention.

School. Sports. Friends. Dating. Not in that order, of course.

The freedom and power Baker recognized in flying has never left him, though. It's just changed his perspective.

Baker's life reads like the "Most Interesting Man in the World's" curriculum vitae. He was flying planes by age 7 and earned a black belt in karate by age 10. He attended a performing arts middle school and was an accomplished drummer as well as the lead in the Outsiders and the Wizard of Oz in theatre. He won two state high school basketball championships. He is the godson of an NFL Hall of Famer. He was tapped for induction into Quill & Dagger Senior Honor Society, a prominent and secret group reserved for the top one percent of undergraduates at Cornell who excel in leadership, character and service.

If you added something unexpected to that list, like being an expert bullfighter or having the ability to solve a Rubik’s cube in 20 seconds, you wouldn't bat an eye. You'd just wonder who he learned that skill from.

That. That's the secret sauce in JT Baker's accomplishments, and something he readily acknowledges. Baker takes coaching well. He collects mentors like others collect memorabilia. He’s a quarterback in a cornerback’s body with all the attributes of a good signal caller. He observes and leads, processes information, and sticks to the game plan. He is disciplined, studied and unflappable. But most importantly, he listens. He always has.

His parents noticed at a young age a special maturity that might have come from pouring everything into their only son. It’s something that everyone notices about him. Talk to 10 people about JT Baker and every one of them mentions a variation of “he’s mature beyond his years.”

On the night of the Minnesota Football Showcase banquet, Baker made it a point to introduce himself to Kevin Warren, the COO of his hometown Vikings. Warren, as he often does, gave JT his business card.

“He asked questions that seasoned executives don’t. A few days later he called me to follow up. I asked him what his career aspirations were. His answers were precise, mature beyond his years,” Warren remembers.

The following summer, Baker became an administrative intern to Warren with the Vikings. He would sit in on high-level meetings and conference calls with legislators, owners, and high-ranking sports executives. It put him in a no-pressure environment to observe, take notes and learn.

“I told him early on, not many young black men get an opportunity to sit in an environment that is very insular without the pressure to produce and to just learn. From the first day we started working with each other, I've exposed him to everything. He comes off as so professional and well-liked - no one was offended he was sitting in on the meetings.”

Warren looked back on his own experience and his many mentors, including former Big Red athletic director and SEC commissioner Mike Slive and longtime NFL head coach Dick Vermeil, and saw himself in Baker’s shoes. People had invested in him the same way he was now investing in Baker.

Baker wears a suit to every Board of Trustee function, required or not. It’s become a bit of a running joke with the trustees. Warren purchased some of those suits for his protege. They end every phone call by telling each other “I love you.”

“I look at JT as a second son to our family. He's special to me, my wife, my son and daughter,” Warren said. “There's a handful of people that come into your life because God brought you together. JT and I will be close as long as we're on this earth.”

“He’s gone above and beyond what it means to be a mentor. Mr. Warren is a really special guy and I look at him like a second father. He’s changed my life, 100 percent,” Baker said. “If I hadn’t made it to the Minnesota State All-Star Game, I would have never met Kevin Warren.”

His relationship with Kevin Warren opened many doors, including with NFL Hall of Famer Cris Carter.

Carter and Baker talk once a week, usually about things that have nothing to do with football. They discuss faith and family, how to navigate life around the coronavirus and what to do after college.

“He's a sponge,” Carter said. “When you’re talking to him, he’s engaged and asking questions. I’m not going to put that kid in a box, because the sky’s the limit for him.”

One of the first things he did when he began his friendship with Carter was introduce him to classmates Eric Gallman and Phazione McClurge. The foursome worked out together during the summer at Carter’s Florida home, a boon to the two senior wide receivers whose new mentor is an eight-time Pro Bowler and one of the greatest pass catchers in football history.

Shortly after he arrived at Cornell, Baker connected with the School of Hotel Administration Dean, Kate Walsh, who put him in touch with Andrew Tisch. The two met for a quick breakfast when Tisch was in town and he left impressed.

Baker’s opportunity to work on the Board of Trustees with Tisch and a number of others has created new relationships that will last long after Baker has graduated.

“It is a pleasure working with JT in his role as Student Elected Trustee where he voices the concerns and ideas of Cornell’s student population among trustees and university leaders with integrity, grace and determination,” said Cornell Vice President for Student & Campus Life, Ryan Lombardi. “I have witnessed his compassion toward others, his drive, and his determination to keep moving forward through life’s many challenges with confidence and positivity.”

“His influence and access is like nothing I've never seen,” Archer said. “He has an incredible personality, is extremely savvy and can work a room in the sincerest way possible.”

Baker’s contacts are not merely a collection of names in a rolodex either. ‘Sincere’ and ‘genuine’ are the words most often used by others describing his intentions.

“I think (members of the Board of Trustees) like me because I don’t have an agenda other than serving the student body,” Baker said. “I’m not a politician.”

“He's a driven individual, and some driven individuals step on people to get where they’re going. He is not that kind of guy. He wants to know how he can get somewhere so he can help others along the way,” Falbo said.

“JT treats the CEO of a Fortune 500 company the same way he does the janitor in the dining halls late at night,” said teammate and friend Phazione McClurge.

Creating connections is a Baker family trait. You can sit in James and Alice’s living room and look up at the wall adorned with pictures with celebrities and friends that visited the restaurant. Sit and listen to JT tell his story and as soon as he finishes talking about his parents, he’ll go straight to Sunnyside Cafe, then to DeLaSalle High School. From there he’ll talk about Cornell. Interspersed among the places that have helped mold him, he’ll tell you about the people he calls family. That’s pretty much everyone he meets.

“JT has made a lot of friends along the way and a lot of big connections,” Tisch said. “Now that isn’t any guarantee, but seeing how he has been able to parlay one success into the next one and into the next one, I'll bet on this kid. I'll bet on him.”

Every year he’s coached, Hallman presents graduated seniors with a book, Robert Greene’s “48 Years of Power”. It brings together the philosophies of powerful historical figures and sets out four dozen universal laws. It’s become a powerful hip-hop symbol, mentioned in songs by Jay Z, Kanye West, 50 Cent and Drake, among others.

“He’s the only one I know that’s ever read it.”

JT Baker '21 and his high school coach, C.J. Hallman, formed a bond while at DeLaSalle HS.

That’s no coincidence.

That same local news story that called Robert Ryan to stop by the Sunnyside Cafe four years ago also touched another viewer. An eighth grader saw the story and always kept it in mind. Early in the fall of 2020, the now high school senior DM’d Baker on Instagram.

He was inspired by Baker’s story and went to DeLaSalle. Now he wants to follow him to Cornell.

Baker called him. The two started talking and building a relationship. Baker offered to help him with his college essays. He’s working on mentoring the next young man up.

“He’s a once-in-a-century type man,” Warren said. “I'm extremely confident when the history books on business, law sports, or politics are written, he’ll have a prominent role. He could end up anywhere from the White House as President, to being a CEO of Fortune 50 company, to being a commissioner of one of our major sports leagues, to being a president of an Ivy League institution.”

The beeps and buzzes in the NICU. The loving words of his parents. The roar of the crowd. The silence of the sky. The whisper of a loving God. The sage advice of his mentors. They play in a loop as if the soundtrack of his life.

When he closes his eyes to reflect, JT Baker hears all those sounds. Like every moment of his life, he’s listened. That’s why he’s more than prepared to make some noise of his own.

Portrait photos by Eldon Lindsay. Other images courtesy of JT Baker, courtesy of Phazione McClurge, Patrick Shanahan, Maddie Epperson, Cornell Office of Student & Campus Life